Feb 26, 2019

The reality of sugar-free products

Products that are being promoted as "Sugar-free", "no-added-sugar" are on the rise. As people are getting aware of the consequences of high sugar consumption, food industry wants to tap into the new demands by launching sugar-free products. Until a few years back, only diabetic patients were seeking such products, but nowadays many health-conscious people who don't want to be trapped by lifestyle diseases are looking out for sugar-free products.

Whenever I accompany my in-laws for grocery shopping, I get very concerned with the way they scout for sugar-free foods in every aisle. Be it ice-creams, jams, biscuits, cookies etc. All they would check for is the label "SUGAR FREE" on the front side of the pack. Both of them have diabetes and hypertension. They have been on artificial sweeteners for decades.

The intention of this article is NOT to talk about artificial sweeteners and their ill effects per se but more about the label "sugar free" and how it can mislead consumers into buying unhealthy products.

Take for example, this pack of Unibic's Daily Digestive sugar free ajwain cookies. 
 
 
 
The first two ingredients are maida and palm oil, both are unhealthy, more so for people who are diabetic. Why? Because of the high glycemic index of maida and the inflammatory properties of refined oil.

Instead of sugar, this pack contains maltitol (E965).  Maltitol is a sugar alcohol (a polyol) used as a sugar substitute. It has 2.1 calories per gram (white sugar has 4 calories per gram) and a glycemic index of 52 (table sugar has a glycemic index of 60). Since maltitol is a carbohydrate and contains calories, it affects blood glucose levels. Some of the side effects of maltitol include abdominal cramps and intestinal gas. It is also mentioned in the pack - "polyols may have laxative effect".


To increase the fibre level, the brand has included fructooligosaccharide. I didn't understand the need for it, given that the pack already contains 7.2% rolled oats and 4.5% wheat bran. Then as I flipped to the front side, I noticed this tagline "33% daily fibre". 100 gm of these cookies contain 8.2 gm of dietary fibre, which is definitely on the higher side. Instead of blindly going with the "high fibre" and "sugar-free" taglines, it is imperative that we also look at the source of fibre.

Dietary Fructooligosaccharides are a form of sugar that is naturally present in onion, garlic, artichokes, banana etc. They act as a prebiotic, as they go undigested into the intestine and feed the gut bacteria. Sounds all good but whether the lab processed fructooligosaccharides provide the same result is something to be questioned. 

Most sugar-free products will have either high levels of fat or salt to compensate for the lack of sugar. 100 gm of these sugar-free ajwain cookies contain 22gm of unhealthy fats. The other unhealthy additives in the form of leavening agents, emulsifiers and artificial flavors are also present.

This is yet another junk masquerading as healthy. Let alone diabetics, it is not a healthy choice for fit people either.

I'm listing down a few other popular brands which use "sugar-free" as their value proposition along with their respective artificial sweeteners.

Horlicks Lite => Acesulfame Potassium (950)
Women's Horlicks => Acesulfame Potassium (950)
Bournvita for women => Sucralose (955)
Brittania Nutrichoice Digestive Zero => Maltitol (965) and Sucralose (955)
Unibic Sugar free Butter cookies =>  Maltitol (965) and Sucralose (955)
McVities Digestive No added sugar => Maltitol (965)

Let's not blindly pick such "sugar-free" labeled junk. Let's read the ingredients and understand the nutrition facts.

Feb 20, 2019

Unibic Daily Digestive Oatmeal cookies review

 
Let me share with you a perfect example of how celebrities/influencers promote junk as "healthy" by spurting out attention-grabbing numbers/stats. 

As I was scrolling through my Insta feed a couple of days back, I stopped at a sponsored ad. It was from Unibic Cookies that showed a video of Shilpa Shetty making a fruit parfait with Unibic Digestive cookies as the base/crumble. This particular line in the caption caught my attention - "To give it a healthy twist, we are making this recipe using Unibic Daily Digestive cookies which has 26% fibre"

Woah, 26% fibre? seriously? I have never seen a packaged food with that high an amount of fibre. I immediately opened my Amazon app, searched for this pack and looked at the nutrition facts table. 100 gm of these cookies contain 6.1gm of dietary fibre, which means it has 6.1% fibre.  So the number quoted in Insta caption is clearly misleading.
 
Source: amazon.in
 
I then opened the video from Shilpa Shetty's Insta page and carefully listened to what she says - "to make the fruit parfait a tad bit healthier, we are going to use Unibic Daily Digestive oatmeal cookies which has 26% fibre of your daily requirement" and then she proceeds with her recipe.

If you are going to talk about daily requirement, you would ideally say "these cookies meet 26% of your daily fibre requirement". They don't contain 26% fibre. 

Let's presume that our daily fibre requirement is 25gm approx. 
26% of that would be 6.5gm, which means we would have to eat around 100gm of these cookies in a day to meet the 26% fibre requirement claim.

I'm not sure how many cookies add upto 100gm. I'm guessing it would be around 7-8. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Long story short, the fitness enthusiast/wellness influencer Ms.Shilpa Shetty (with 9.5 million followers in Instagram) claims that eating 7-8 unibic daily digestive cookies in a day is healthy because it gives us 26% of daily fibre requirement.

Let's look at the ingredients:
Source: amazon.in

Wheat flour, Edible Vegetable Oil (palm), Sugar, Rolled Oats (8%), Liquid Glucose, Wheat bran (3%), Milk Solids, Leavening agents (E500 ii, E503 ii), Salt, Emulsifier (E322 from soya).

As expected, the first three ingredients are maida, palm oil and sugar. Rolled oats is ONLY 8%. 
I'm so glad that FSSAI has brought in the regulation that mandates food companies to print "refined wheat flour" for maida and not "wheat flour". How ridiculously misleading it is currently!

100 gm of these cookies contain 23.4 gm of unhealthy fats and 18 gm of sugar. If we eat 7-8 cookies in a day so that we get 26% of daily fibre requirement, then we are also consuming around 6 tsp of unhealthy fats and 4.5 tsp of sugar. How does this make us "tad bit healthier"?

I had earlier written about McVities Digestive and Britannia Nutrichoice cookies. All these so-called "digestive" cookies are totally unhealthy and addictive because of the high amounts of fat and sugar.

In this age of short attention span, it is very easy to be misled by claims made by celebrities, brand endorsers and food influencers. If someone uses "health tags" and highlights individual nutrients like fibre, protein, calcium etc, be extremely cautious. Read the ingredients list, nutrition facts table and make a conscious decision for yourself and your family. These food/fitness influencers don't care a hoot about our health. If they do, they won't be promoting such junk in the first place. 

Feb 8, 2019

How much sugar does Nutella and other chocolate spreads contain?

Source: BigBasket

 
The chocolate and nut based spreads have become a staple in many urban households, ever since Nutella set its footsteps firmly in the Indian market. As though Nutella isn't enough, there are quite a few similar chocolate spreads that have been occupying the supermarket shelves the past few years.

A few weeks back, I heard a mom saying casually, "My daughter CANNOT eat idli, dosa or chapathi without ketchup, jam or choco spread". Her 5-year old daughter is a sweet child but OBESE at such a young age. How did our kids reach that "CANNOT EAT FOOD WITHOUT CHOCOSPREAD" state? It is us, parents who introduced them to such junk in the first place. If the child protests that she won't eat regular food, why do we succumb so easily? What worse could happen? They might throw a tantrum or skip a meal. So what? After a few days, they would forget and move on. Instead, what do we do? We indulge them, we fulfill their every single demand for such sugar loaded junk without any limits. If they won't eat regular foods, we immediately end up opening the bottle of Nutella, just so they eat atleast something.

This habitual consumption of sugary foods is extremely harmful for our children's health. Here's a quick comparison on the amount of sugar and unhealthy refined fats in these choco-spread brands.


As you can see, more than 50% of the product is SUGAR. This one reason is strong enough NOT to buy and stock up these spreads at home. I had earlier written in detail about Nutella and Hersheys Choco spreads. Do take a look if you haven't.

If your kid is 1-2 years old, then do not serve them idli/dosa with sugar or chapathi with ketchup. They get used to the sweet taste at such a young age. Serve plain idli with a little ghee and chutney/sambhar without any chilli flavour.
 
If your child has started to read, show them the pack and ask them to read the first 2 ingredients. 
For older children, sit down, have a chat and make them understand the sugar and chemicals in these spreads. They can calculate the % of sugar if they are familiar with division, fractions, percentages etc. This helps them to start reading labels and understanding the nutrition table right from the age of 8-10 years. Instead of just following orders from parents, they start to take responsibility and become more involved in the shopping decisions. Also helps to put Maths concepts to practical use :-)

P.S. If you are thinking about using them in moderation or keeping them for "emergency" days when the kid wouldn't eat anything, sorry that ain't gonna work. What I have learnt is that if there is junk sitting in the fridge, kids would remember and reach for it all the time. If there is no stock at home, they would eat whatever is available. As simple as that.

Jan 29, 2019

The slow afternoon

After lunch, I stepped out and sat on the swing in my balcony garden. My cat was resting peacefully as usual, soaking in the sunshine. There was just a slight tingling of her ears because of my footsteps. After realizing it was me, she went back to her nap. I sat there, without any book or gadgets in hand. It was blazing hot but I needed that warmth. I quietly started observing the various sights and sounds around me - gentle swaying of palm leaves, distant sound of helicopter, honking from cars on the road (yeah, even at 1PM), bees buzzing from one flower to the next, my cat nicely stretched and her breath so rhythmic and relaxed, a tiny jasmine flower that has just bloomed this morning, announcing that summer is nearing. As I was taking in all these through my senses, a pigeon dropped by from nowhere and was curiously looking around. I turned towards my cat and as expected, she was all alert but for only a few seconds. She might have thought, "nah, I already had my food. Not hungry enough to grab a pigeon. Why waste my effort?" and she continued her nap.

These 15 minutes felt like meditation to me. We don't need fancy apps or wellness retreats to feel the inner peace. Just by being ourselves in the present moment, being aware of our surroundings, being conscious of our senses and just observing nature - so simple but we have complicated our lives so much that these ideas sound so alien and strange. As I was taking a walk in the terrace last evening, this incredible view of sunset just brought so much happiness. 

Slow living, mindful living, conscious living - whatever may be the term for it, this is the way I'm going forward with my life. I don't need to be busy every single waking minute - jumping from one task to next, reading a book, watching a video, cooking, scrolling through social media feed etc. I need these "do-nothing" moments too.

And for those who ask me, "What are you upto these days?", my answer is going to be "living my life", as simple as that.

Jan 25, 2019

What you seek is seeking you

The last 2 months seem like a blur. Winter is definitely not my favorite season. The dullness, fatigue and the chill made me feel very down. I was lethargic and didn't have the motivation to do anything. Added to that, the new Netflix connection unleashed the couch potato in me. Tougher questions like "what next?" started creeping in, ever since my last consulting contract ended in Dec. I also felt stuck at home because of the cold weather. The afternoon sun rays just didn't seem to give any warmth.

Thankfully, I see a hope of light in the past few days. My Yoga mornings are back to being regular. The winter is slowly packing its bags and bidding goodbye (thank you very much!). I just decided on a whim to go for a walk on my apartment terrace this evening. The beautiful sunset, pleasant weather, cloudy sky and fresh air brought a lot of cheer to my heart. I stopped my brisk walk now and then to look at the busy road - people returning from work, cars gliding through at a slow pace without honking madly and the day slowly winding up.

After a few minutes, I settled into a good rhythm of walking and the thoughts that were bothering me started to make a comeback. I spoke to the universe, "What should I do? I don't want to get into a full time job. I want flexibility and at the same time, meaningful work. I want to work at my own pace and want to create an impact, blah, blah, blah". The usual talk. By now, the universe would have got bugged with the same thoughts from me ;-)

As I continued my walk, a thought just popped in my head, "Give priority to learning". Yes, these exact 4 words. And there it was, the light bulb moment that I was waiting for. The truth hit me hard. I realized over the last few months, I haven't learnt anything new. Sure, I was reading a few books but I haven't pursued learning with rigor, focus or discipline. Whatever I "want" are the outcomes but the means to achieve the same is through learning. 

Learning doesn't have to be tied to an outcome such as exams, interviews, course completion, job etc. But learning just for the sheer joy of learning without any external pressure. It could be anything that captures my interest and curiosity at this point of time. I asked myself, "What are my current areas of interest? What do I want to learn more about?" And the list started growing.
  1. Physics
  2. Evolution and anthropology
  3. Epigenetics
  4. Climate change
  5. Japanese culture
  6. Behavioral psychology
  7. Mental wellness
  8. Nutrition, more on the role of gut
  9. Pranic healing.....it's not because of Petta 😉
  10. Buddhism
  11. Upanishads
  12. Neuro-biology
  13. Minimalism
  14. Growth mindset
  15. Organic gardening
  16. Power of Focus, attention, deep work
It felt so good to have come up with this list. All it needed was a brisk walk outside for 30 minutes by myself, without any gadgets in hand. It is a proof of the amazing power of just being with our thoughts.

Jan 24, 2019

Kelloggs Real Thandai Badam corn flakes review

 
I'm a serious Tamil movie buff. Some of the dialogues from popular movies etti paathufy (sneak in) in my articles now and then. So sorry about that. 

Junk foods review ve podaama kaanji poi irundha en blogukkuga vandhudhu Instagram sponsored ad from Kelloggs (It's been a while since I posted about any junk foods and my blog looked like a draught struck field. Thanks to Instagram sponsored ads, found this new one from Kelloggs). This time, it is the new product line titled Real thandai badam corn flakes, right in time for Holi.

In Captain Vijayakanth style, "breakfast cereal, junk foods la enakku pidikkadha mudhal vaarthai " (the junk food I hate the most is breakfast cereal)

Ok, enough of vetti pechu (trash talk). Let's get to the facts.

The front side of the packaging states "Energy from real almonds", "created by local chefs". Turn to the back side, the brand tries to invoke a nostalgic memory of drinking a glass of chilled thandai (nostalgia is a powerful emotion, exploited by creative marketers. Remember Paper Boat ads?).

Let's not fall for such traps. Let's decipher the ingredients list and nutrition facts.

Source: https://www.amazon.in/Kelloggs-Cornflakes-Real-Thandai-Badaam/dp/B07LC82S52/
Corn grits (60.5%), Sugar, Sliced Almonds (10%), Malt extract, Iodised Salt, Vitamins, Minerals, 
Colours (INS 100(i), INS 160a(i)), 
Condiments (Cardamom powder (0.005%), Fennel powder (0.002%)),
Antioxidant (INS 320)
 
 

  1. The quantity of almonds is ONLY 10% and the % of condiments is so negligible. Thandai is such a flavorful, aromatic drink with spices like cardamom, dry ginger, saffron, fennel and rose petals, not to forget the good proportion of nuts like cashew, pista, melon seeds and almonds. It is an insult to our traditional drink "thandai" to have its name being associated with such junk food.
     
  2. The second listed ingredient is Sugar. A 30 gm serving size contains 9.5 gm of sugar (around 2.5 tsp of sugar) whereas a 30 gm serving size of original Kelloggs corn flakes contains 2.5 gm of sugar (around 1/2 tsp of sugar). What a premium we are paying for the extra sugar!!
     
  3. A 30gm serving size contains a meagre 0.7 gm of dietary fibre and 1.7 gm of protein. One can get higher fibre and protein by eating 10 plain almonds. Why put our bodies through such sugar load?
     
  4. The colour INS 100(i) is the yellow colour extracted from turmeric. This is similar to the "unga toothpaste la uppu irukka?" moment (does your toothpaste contain salt?). We have been including turmeric in milk, thandai and most dishes on a daily basis. Now the global food corporations extract the colour from turmeric and sell it back to us.
These 4 reasons are more than enough to not buy such products in the first place. We deserve real food and not such gimmicks. Make a glass of real thandai and enjoy it guilt free this Holi season.

Jan 21, 2019

Why cooking is an essential skill for all?

Recently, I came across an email campaign by Zomato titled "No cooking January". What the hell, I wondered. Are they urging people to order in all their meals for a MONTH? The email says "This month you can do more of what you like the most – stay in bed, catch an extra snooze or two, watch your favourite shows and binge on all the food you crave."

What a perfect recipe for weight gain and loss of health, that too being prescribed for a month like January when people usually make fitness resolutions!

I vividly remember this conversation that happened a couple of years back at a friend's home. It was a varamahalakshmi pooja day and many women from our apartment were at her place, including me. The friend enquired me about my cooking and then turned to another lady and said, "Anu loves cooking. I have tasted her aviyal, it was yum". The lady then looked at me in disbelief, "What? You like cooking?" in a disgusted tone. I confidently responded, "Yes, I do. What about you?" She casually replied, "No, I don't enjoy cooking. I don't have time for it. I'm an engineer". No kidding, this was her exact reply. "I'm an engineer too", I replied in a calm tone.

Firstly, sly remarks about someone's passions and interests is so uncool. Even if you don't have similar interests, you don't have to voice out your opinion so direct in front of someone's face.

Now wait, what's the connection between the "No Cooking January" and this incident? I can hear you asking.

More and more people, especially those who are breaking the glass ceiling and "going places" demean cooking as a drudgery, bore, time-consuming chore etc. They embrace frequent ordering in, takeaways, ready-to-eat processed foods etc. They are the target audience for such "no cooking" campaigns by food delivery companies. 

It is perfectly okay to order in/eat out 1-2 times a month when we are unwell, tired or want to take a break. But if the frequency increases to say, 3-4 times a week, then we should be concerned.

There has been a shift in our mindset towards exercise and fitness over the past 4-5 years. Many of us have taken up either running, gym, pilates, swimming, Yoga etc. We invest atleast 30-45 minutes everyday in engaging in such forms of exercise. The same rigor and commitment is required towards what we EAT as well. Food and nutrition contributes to a significant percentage towards our well-being. Let's not get into a debate on what the exact percentage is. Some say, it is 70%, 75%, 80% etc. 

Here are my 2-cents on why I believe cooking is an essential skill for all, irrespective of gender, educational qualification, job title, salary, perks etc.
  1. It is high time we take complete responsibility towards our daily food intake. Outsourcing to food corporations, restaurants or food delivery startups is a recipe for disaster. I have written enough about packaged foods, its ingredients and how we are being fooled by attractive health related claims. With restaurants, the problems are even more harder to identify, as we don't know what goes into making our food - the quality of the ingredients, hygiene of the staff, packing materials used. We can get food at a cheaper price if we order from food delivery providers like Swiggy, Zomato etc, but no one really knows about the quality.
     
  2. We don't need an elaborate 3-4 course meal every single day. Let's keep our food expectations simple enough. A simple breakfast and lunch menu can be prepared in 45-50 minutes. We have enough gadgets (mixer, food processor, chopper, blender etc) to make the process of cooking faster. "Where there is a will, there is a way" - if we decide that we will ONLY eat home-cooked foods as much as possible, then we will figure out ways to sort out the challenges.
     
  3. I find cooking to be therapeutic and provides a good break from gadgets/devices etc. The more we do with our hands, the more our minds are engaged. Be it any skill like painting, crocheting, knitting etc. Cooking provides the similar meditative feel. If you are connected 24/7 to your smart phone and other devices, cooking provides the perfect way to unwind and digital detox every single day.
     
  4. If we can't afford to spend that 45-50 min everyday, then it is time we analyze how we are spending our time on a daily basis. Are we taking up more commitments? Are we being super busy but not really productive? Are we prioritizing wrong tasks?
     
  5. If you are like the person above who simply hates cooking and just can't afford to spend time in the kitchen, then hire a househelp to manage cooking at home. It is still homecooked food with quality ingredients, much better than ordering in.
     
    Last but not the least, let's stop stereotyping women who love to cook are traditional and homely, and women who hate being in the kitchen are modern and ambitious. Please, this is so ridiculous. The media and ads portray such nonsense.
     
    I cook because I like to take control of my health and my family's health.

Jan 10, 2019

Book Review: Notes for Healthy Kids by Rujuta Diwekar

 
Ever since Rujuta announced this book, I've been eagerly awaiting its launch. Having read all her previous books, I resonate with her approach towards nutrition, fitness and health. Though I may not agree with every single tip/guideline that she shares in her books, I totally subscribe to her underlying philosophy of eating local, seasonal and traditional foods.

A few months back, I was at a book store and was skimming through another popular book on kids nutrition written by another celebrity nutritionist. I knew this book wasn't my type when I came across a strict calorie-based approach and suggesting 2 rotis for lunch, 150 ml of milk for after-school drink etc, all measured to the T. We are raising children, not robots.

Coming to "Notes for Healthy Kids", Rujuta in her trademark style describes the various factors that are impacting the health of today's children. And parents alone cannot be blamed for it. It is a systemic failure due to poor regulations, biased policies and lack of efforts from the Government.

The book gives equal importance to nutrition, exercise, physical activity and sleep. Apart from addressing parents on the importance of each of these aspects, there are also chapters that elderly kids and teens can read and relate to. Rujuta has also shared some interesting anecdotes from her interactions with her clients. The one on oats noodles with veggies cracked me up. And I was so happy to see her calling out the amounts of sugar and other artificial ingredients in packaged "health drinks" like Horlicks, Bournvita etc. Something that most Indian mothers and grandmothers believe to be quintessential in a child's diet. Towards the end of the book, Rujuta has listed down all packaged foods and she advises not to exceed 1-2 times a month. This includes packaged cheese cubes, yes, the ones which go into the snack box every single day. 

Here are three important key take-aways for me from this book.
  • Rujuta shares 4 important "food fundas" for parents, out of which I'm following 3 of them. I have eliminated most junk foods from my daughter's diet, cook local, seasonal and traditional foods for her and don't talk to her about individual nutrients like protein, calcium, iron etc. I feed her according to her appetite. When she says enough, I stop. I have never force fed her. We eat simple dinners before 8PM on most days. So far, so good. The area I need to work on are
    • HOW my daughter eats. Rujuta recommends the three S's of eating right - sit, switch off, senses. I need to follow this important rule as well. 
  • Ninety minutes of free play every single day. Given that we live in an apartment with limited outdoor space, she is bored to play in the same place everyday. I'll have to figure out something to encourage her to step outdoors and play often.
  • Stay active and help around. Involving kids with chores and tasks at home is extremely important to enable them to become more self reliant and independent. Now that my daughter is 7, I should involve her more often in various tasks at home.
The book also gives food guidelines based on different age groups, specific health situations and ailments, which can be a handy reference.

Overall, I loved reading this book and I would highly recommend it to all parents. 

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